Fort Worth parochial high school faulted in Army report on recruiting

FORT WORTH -- An Army investigation into bogus diplomas and transcripts from a Fort Worth parochial high school uncovered evidence that students were graduating despite never having attended a class and that five Army recruiters were violating policy in sending them there.

The Army's 5th Recruiting Brigade began investigating St. Augustine's Catholic High School last year after bogus diplomas and transcripts surfaced bearing the name of the private school.

The school is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth.

John Parnell, who runs the school, had accused Army recruiters of generating the fake documents to process the recruits' enrollment into the service more quickly.

Investigators could not find proof that recruiters had falsified documents.

"The evidence comes down to what the school says versus what the recruiters state. Both sides could have taken advantage of falsifying documents," investigators wrote in a 609-page report recently obtained by the Star-Telegram under an open-records request made last year.

The investigation, however, did reveal that five recruiters broke Army policy, including recommending St. Augustine's to recruits, driving recruits to the school and even paying for some students to enroll.

The school did not meet the Army's standards, in part because it graduated recruits who had never even attended a day of class, according to the investigation.

As a result, five students who claimed to be graduates couldn't enlist as planned.

"It's unfortunate that they were misled by recruiters, and we sincerely apologize for it," said Lt. Col. Frances Hardison, who has since taken command of the Dallas Recruiting Battalion.

"However, we have educational standards that must be met, and we do not compromise those. Unfortunately, we had a few bad apples that did. We had some young Americans that unfortunately couldn't enlist because of it. We can only apologize for it."

Parnell says he doesn't care whether the Army no longer recognizes his diplomas.

"Our blessings come from God. It doesn't come from the Army," he said.

He insists that his school is valid and says he no longer wants to deal with the Army anyway.

"I'd rather not see my students in the Army," he said. "If the Army is not going to do anything but lie, I don't want nothing to do with it."

Between August 2005 and April 2009, 34 men and women attempted to enlist in the Army with St. Augustine diplomas, 20 of whom were accepted.

Gaps in oversight

It's not the first time that St. Augustine's educational standards have been questioned.

In 2005, a complaint was filed with the Texas Education Agency over concerns that Springtown High School was steering potential dropouts to an alternative graduation program at St. Augustine's, even though the school lacked credible accreditation. The TEA determined that it was not authorized to take formal action against St. Augustine's.

Parnell describes St. Augustine's, located at the intersection of Byron Street and Blackstone Drive on the eastern edge of River Oaks, as a "home-school-type program." He said classroom instruction was added 11 years ago for recruits at the Army's insistence. Tuition starts at about $210.

While schools like St. Augustine's are supposed to be evaluated yearly, battalion officials say oversight had waned in recent years because of high turnover in the battalion's education specialist position. At one point the position was vacant for one year.

During the vacancy, investigators found that evaluations of St. Augustine's were not being done correctly, and red flags began to surface last year.

In January 2009, the battalion's then-education specialist noticed date discrepancies in school records and received word that Parnell had fired all his teachers and that only one person was teaching classes. Also concerning to the specialist was that one recruit had received approximately 11 credits in just two weeks.

The specialist's on-site visit to the school that March revealed that chickens were running about and there were no signs of classrooms. Parnell couldn't provide a curriculum or any information on the classes that he claimed were being taught twice a week at the school, the report states.

The specialist immediately notified the battalion that the school did not meet Army requirements and that students enrolled there who were trying to enlist should be pulled out.

Lawren Chavez-Allison was just days away from leaving for boot camp when Army officials told her on April 1, 2009, that her St. Augustine diploma and transcripts were bogus and that the Army would not accept her.

Outraged, her mother, Mendy Allison, filed a complaint with the Army and contacted the media, telling the Star-Telegram that it had been an Army recruiter who had referred her daughter to the school.

Parnell blamed recruiters for creating fraudulent diplomas and transcripts.

The Dallas Recruiting Battalion conducted a preliminary investigation that, according to an e-mail by an unidentified official, "found no evidence of any wrongdoing by the recruiters and determined the school was a diploma mill."

The official blamed "false allegations against the battalion" on an unidentified recruit who had been discharged because his or her diploma had been deemed fraudulent.

Chavez-Allison and four other Army applicants enrolled in St. Augustine's were not allowed to enlist.

Two other students enrolled in different schools obtained their diplomas, and were allowed to enlist, said LaShonda Walker, a battalion spokeswoman.

Take-home packets cited

A more in-depth investigation, conducted by the Army's 5th Recruiting Brigade out of Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, concurred that the school's curriculum did not meet Army standards.

Investigators interviewed 14 Army recruits who had graduated or attended St. Augustine's, 94 percent of whom said their schooling involved take-home packets.

Most graduates told investigators they'd been given 12 packets to complete at their own pace. Several reported finishing the packets in a few weeks. One applicant, who had lacked two years of high school, told investigators he finished them all in one evening.

"By the end of this investigation it was evident that there were no classes being held at St. Augustine," investigators wrote. "Applicants stated they went in for tutoring but not one stated they actually attended a classroom environment where they had a teacher."

Parnell insists he held classes for the recruits and says the students are lying.

"They have to say whatever their recruiters, their sergeants, tell them to say," he said. "They all cover for each other."

Investigators wrote in their report that Parnell could provide no evidence that students were actually attending classes

"When we asked Father Parnell to see his curriculum, he provided us with a sheet of paper describing the 12 packets which every student receives," the report states. "He was not able to provide us with a written class schedule or anything to support the fact that students were showing up for class."

Also concerning to investigators was the school's lack of accreditation by a recognized agency.

St. Augustine's is not accredited by the Texas Private School Accreditation Commission, which monitors private schools, or the Texas Catholic Conference Education Department, which monitors Catholic schools.

Parnell says the school is accredited by the Oxford Educational Network, based in Oxford, England, and the International Catholic Accrediting Association, based in Rome.

Parnell could not provide the Star-Telegram with contact information for either association.

A former employee of St. Augustine's told investigators that Parnell owns the Oxford Educational Network, an accusation he denies. (The network's previous website does list him as a board member.)

The Star-Telegram couldn't confirm the existence of the International Catholic Accrediting Association.

Punished recruiters

The interviews with past St. Augustine students also uncovered one thing that the preliminary investigation did not: wrongdoing by recruiters.

Half of those interviewed said they'd been directed to St. Augustine by their recruiter, and 46 percent said their recruiter had driven them to St. Augustine's.

Six percent said their recruiter paid for their enrollment at St. Augustine.

Twenty-one percent said their recruiter sent them to a second school and paid for it, the investigation found.

In all, seven recruiters were accused of violating Army policy.

Allegations against two recruiters were unsubstantiated, the report states.

The remaining five -- who had been assigned to recruiting stations in Euless, Irving and Lewisville -- all received nonjudicial punishment, according to the Dallas Recruiting Battalion.

Only two of those punished remain on recruiting duty, Walker said.

Lt. Col. Hardison said the battalion is now using the case in recruiter training as an example of what not to do.

Parnell says he believes St. Augustine's fell under attack because of his refusal to bow down to recruiters' demands.

"It's ridiculous. They put so much pressure on us. The recruiters themselves would demand we work [applicants] through as quick as we could," he said.

Parnell said the school is still in operation, currently with 42 students enrolled and five teachers.

Allison, whose daughter was among the seven students enrolled in St. Augustine's when the investigation began, said the Army's refusal to allow her daughter to enter the Army turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Now 20, her daughter is getting married and expecting a baby, she said.

"Luckily it was not 700 kids, it was just seven who got caught up in this mess," Allison said. "My daughter didn't sustain any bad repercussions from it, but what about some young guy who couldn't get in and maybe needed to support a family?"

Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655